A pilot program at the University of B.C. to create affordable housing is being challenged because the university is planning to hand out these coveted low-cost units to professors based on their perceived value to the institution.
Even though the application process has not closed yet for the 150 units in the first phase, the unusual system is already generating criticism from the university’s faculty.[pullquote align=”right”]This has got all sorts of potential to be bad[/pullquote]“This has got all sorts of potential to be bad,” said Leanne Bablitz, a professor of Roman history at UBC.
“It’s just another way of determining the value of individual faculty members. So it’s another thing for all of us to fight over. I mean we’re already ranked based on who’s publishing, who isn’t, who’s working for the department, who’s not. Now another reward?”
She’s only one of many who have voiced complaints.
But Prof. Nassif Ghoussoub, a math professor who proposed the merit-based policy to the university’s board of governors, said UBC has to do this to attract the best faculty — something it’s been having a hard time with because of high local housing prices.
“I have been realizing for the last 10 years that many of our offers are declined by people, and we are losing to University of Texas at Austin, Georgia Tech and University of Maryland,” he said.
For him, it no different from many other benefits at the university that are decided on the basis of a professor’s performance. “We do it all the time. Deans decide who gets the merit [pay] increases. So it’s meritocracy most of the time.”
Ghoussoub is no longer involved with the selection process, because he thinks it’s too complex and long-drawn-out. But he still defends the decision to choose applicants on the basis of their value to the university.
How housing applicants will be chosen
Professors will be chosen for the new, low-cost housing in a four-step process. First, the professors apply. Then, departments will compile a list of applicants. In the third, crucial step, faculty deans will say who are the most valuable applicants from the list. Lastly, the housing-allocation committee will make the final choices.[column size=”two-third”]Even professors who think they stand a good shot at getting a unit are uncomfortable with the process.
Geography professor Andreas Christen said that the process should deal with faculty’s specific housing needs and affordability challenges, not hand out valuable housing based on merit.
“Dealing on a case-by-case basis is probably from a strategic perspective the best in the short run.”
Despite meeting the application criteria, Christen, who has three children, said he would not apply because the housing units are very small.
Why the plan was initiated
The university has worked to provide affordable housing on campus for decades, building student housing from the early days and, in more recent years, instituting various programs to create affordable rental and home-ownership projects.
Despite these measures, the university’s international standing has progressively gone down in the last five to six years. The drop has been partly attributed to the inability of the school to attract and retain top-notch faculty members due to Vancouver’s increasingly expensive housing market.
In a bid to restore the university to its former status, a new housing-affordability program was approved in September 2012. Besides offering low-cost housing, the program aimed to create a community that mixed faculty and students.
“So faculty lives in houses and, next to them, you have houses rented by students and so there’s lot of interaction between students and faculty,” said Ghoussoub.
However, the new development won’t be open to university staff.
Two options for housing
The approved 150 units of the first phase will be located on the south side of the campus at Wesbrook Mall and will be allocated equally between new hires and long-time faculty.
The balance could change, depending on demand.[/column] [column size=”one-third” last=”true”]Policy comparison
SFU places priority on faculty with families.
Offers housing to faculty at 20 per cent below the market rate.
The units will continue to be sold at discounted rates to faculty members.
UBC places priority on faculty with high importance to the school.
It offers the houses at 33 per cent below market rate.
At the death of the primary owner, the spouse would have to vacate.
The faculty must be of high retention value to the school.
Faculty must be important to the health and safety of members of the community on campus.
At the death of the primary NYU employee, the spouse/partner can enter into a new agreement with NYU within two years.[/column]
“So if we found that there wasn’t enough interest, we will divert to either camp,” said Lisa Colby, who is the managing director for faculty staff housing and relocation.
The affordable housing program, which is targeted at full-time professors, will be subject to review after three years.
Faculty members selected for a new unit will have to choose between two options that make the housing more affordable.
Under one option, they can buy a house for a third less than what it would cost on the open market. When they sell, they will only get two-thirds of the value of that house, while the university retains the other third.
Under the second option, they can get an interest-free mortgage for 30 years on one-third the value of the house. When they sell, they have to pay back the interest that accrued on that loan.
Applications opened March 14 and close March 31. So far, about 500 visits have been tracked on the website, a development Colby says is very encouraging.
The start date for the project will be determined by demand. Construction will take 18 months to two years.